It wasn’t hard for the cops to identify suspects in the murder of New Orleans pizza deliveryman Richard “Chris” Yeager five years ago.
Electronic monitors, which had been attached to the ankles of Rennel Brown and Shane Hughes while they awaited trial on other offenses, put them at the scene.
While that did not indicate any great brainpower on the part of Brown and Hughes, both 16 years old, it also raised questions about the competence of the sheriff’s office, which was responsible for running the ankle monitoring. Brown had violated his curfew on previous occasions and should not have been free to roam the streets, then-City Council President Stacy Head wrote in a letter to the sheriff’s office.
And it was Brown who shot Yeager. A jury acquitted Hughes, who claimed to have fled the scene just before. Brown pleaded to manslaughter and is doing 40 years.
The sheriff’s office had taken over the program in 2010 because the private company hired to run it when Ray Nagin was mayor had proven too slow to report violations.
Whether sheriff’s deputies were an improvement is an open question. A 14-year old boy arrested for a string of armed robberies in 2012 had been wearing an ankle monitor throughout, but it didn’t work. The City’s Inspector General meanwhile concluded that the sheriff’s office ran a sloppy operation and failed to keep proper records. Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who had long complained that Nagin’s successor, Mitch Landrieu, starved him of money, duly threw in the towel.
Still, given that ankle monitoring is an important tool in the drive to reduce the enormous financial and social cost of pretrial incarceration, the judiciary was eager to see the program continue, and two private companies stepped into the breach. Although no more major derelictions have been reported, there are calls to go public again. This may seem to be a triumph of hope over experience, but a public operation would no doubt provide more of the “transparency” and “accountability” that are universally in demand these days. Among those in favor of a public ankle monitoring program is the Metropolitan Crime Commission, whose opinions always carry considerable weight.
Criminal Court Judge Paul Bonin said he would welcome a public program too, which is not surprising, given the embarrassment his involvement in the private one has caused him. Bonin has been round the judicial block a few times — he was elected to his current seat after long stints on the Traffic and Appeal courts — so he ought to have a keener sense of ethics than he has been displaying lately.
Defendants who are spared jail in return for wearing an ankle monitor can get one from either of two companies. Given a choice any suspect would rather incur that cost than rot in jail.
And which of the two companies has Bonin consistently urged defendants to do business with? It happens to be the one, co-owned by his former law partner, that has contributed thousands to his election campaign fund. And if any fees are outstanding when the case is closed, Bonin has insisted they be paid before he will order the monitors removed. Given the socio-economic status of most suspects, that is not always easy.
Although Bonin said he had violated no ethical provisions, after being quizzed by a reporter, he contacted all his defendants hooked up to his pet firm’s monitors to explain they were free to switch to the competition, which rather suggests he knew he’d not been playing fair.
And that means that his conduct could be viewed as a violation of the state Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires the avoidance of “impropriety or the appearance of impropriety in all activities.”
Ankle monitoring is an expensive business — it used to cost $400,000 a year back when the sheriff’s office ran the program, according to its lawyer Blake Arcuri — but the taxpayer will presumably figure it will still be cheaper than locking all the suspects up again.
There might be a case for making defendants who could afford to do so pay for their ankle monitors even if the program were publicly administered. But the bureaucratic costs of means testing would inevitably exceed the fee revenue, so the taxpayer would be out of pocket. The system would have to be more efficient than its last public incarnation to justify the switch.